This panel focused on how the conflict in Syria has the potential to renew hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah ten years after the 34 day war in 2006. Moderated by Hudson senior fellow, Lee Smith, this panel included, Reuven Azar, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Israel to the United States, Hudson senior fellow, Michael Doran, and Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. This summary highlights the comments made by Michael Doran and Tony Badran.
Michael Doran was very concerned about the future of Iran-US-Russia relations. Doran claimed that he has always held the view that Iran is the biggest US adversary in the Middle East. During the Bush Administration, Doran worked on the Hezbollah-Israel war issue in 2006. He understood, at that time, that this was a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran and that everything in the U.S.’s power needed to be done to counter Iran and Hezbollah. Israel was given a blank check by the U.S. to take care of business. In this case, the biggest surprise to Doran was that the Saudis did not complain when Israel attacked Hezbollah. In fact, the Arab league even blamed Hezbollah for the war—taking the Jews’ side. This reveals that the Saudis viewed, and rightfully so in Doran’s opinion, Iran as the biggest threat to the region.
Fast-forwarding to today, 2016, Doran continues to see Iran as the biggest winner under the current conditions of the US-led coalition against ISIS. He argued, trying not to be too dramatic, that the day of reckoning between the United States and Iran or Israel and Iran is within the coming years or even year. The United States has coordinated with Iran on the ground and Russia in the air in the fight against ISIS in Syria. IRGC forces and Russian airpower are working on the Syrian northern front, but will soon be heading southward toward the Israeli border. This is where Israel becomes a key player. Doran pointed out that Israel has three red lines for Iran/Hezbollah/Russia:
- No IRGC Forces on the ground in Southern Syria.
- No cross border raids
- No strategic weapons to Hezbollah from Syria
In Doran’s opinion, the White House’s argument that we do not have to worry about the coordination between the Russians and Iranians is “bunk.” The argument he discussed claimed that the Russians and Iranians are not getting along and will eventually split and go their separate ways. Doran doesn’t see it this way. Instead, He argued that we have a situation with a strong Iran, strong Hezbollah, an uninterested America, and a tremendously fluid environment; this is all a recipe for a very bad development.
Furthermore, Mike Doran discussed the issue of, what he calls, the entire “game board” in the Middle East. He is not fully convinced that the Hillary Clinton camp totally understands this. Everyone seems to agree that we must fight ISIS and push back against Iran, but this gets awkward when we start aligning ourselves with Russia in the fight against ISIS, because any alignment with Russia is a de facto alignment with Iran. Therefore, if we change the equation in Syria, we also have to consider how that changes the situation in Iraq, with the Iranian-backed Shiite militias there. In Iraq, we work directly with the Shiite government, who in turn work with Iran. Doran emphasized that we are currently always one step removed from Iran and they could make us pay on the nuke deal and in Iraq and Syria if we adjust the balance of power. Therefore, the implications of changing the game board in any way must be taken into consideration. There is no in-between, we are either an adversary with Russia and Iran, or we are not.
“They could make us pay on the nuke deal and in Iraq and Syria if we adjust the balance of power.”
Doran also discussed his concerns with the belief in the current administration that we share common interests with Russia. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, defines all Syrian opposition forces as terrorist, while we only define Nusra front and ISIS as terror groups and actually arm certain Syrian opposition forces. More importantly, Russia doesn’t define Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The idea that we are aligned with Russia in this regard is ludicrous. When we work with Russia against ISIS and “all terror” groups it plays directly to their benefit, there is no advantage for us.
As the conflict continues, refugees, fleeing Assad, Russia and Iran, spill into Europe and into countries along the NATO frontier. Russia loves this. They see all the problems it is causing for Europe and the U.S. and it’s in their best interest to continue exporting chaos to their enemies. According to Doran, the Kremlin is calling all the shots. He further pointed out that Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, has been to Russia 4 times recently, which goes to show that everyone knows who is controlling the situation in Syria. It is no longer the U.S., but Russia that people care about. Another example of the U.S. propagating this new Russian supremacy, was when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in December of 2015. Instead of coming to the strong support of Turkey, a NATO ally, the U.S. treated it as a bilateral problem between Russia and Turkey, and secretly scolded Turkey behind the scenes. Consequently, instead of supporting NATO, the Obama administration allowed a Russian fly zone along the NATO frontier. This is not good for American, European or NATO interests. It was, to use Doran’s language, “strategically stupid.”
In addition, Doran characterized Russia and Iran as Siamese twins. Sometimes they hate each other and they may fight, but they share vital organs. Russia doesn’t want to send in ground troops, they prefer to use their air force and support the IRGC and Hezbollah forces on the ground. Additionally, on a geostrategic level, both need Assad desperately. For this reason, they are completely wedded to each other. If a Sunni successor were to replace the current Alawite ruling structure in Syria, Iran would lose its land bridge to the eastern Mediterranean and Russia would lose its most critical Middle Eastern ally on the eastern Mediterranean.
Finally, Doran mapped out goals for a future administration:
- The next administration must decide if Iran and Russia are our friends or enemies.
- We have boxed Israel in and left it alone on the front line to face Iran and Russia, we have to decide if that is a condition that we are okay with.
- The US must create a regional order that is advantageous to its allies by pushing back hard against Iran and Russia across the board, including Iraq.
“The Russians and Iranians are like siamese twins, they hate each other and they may fight, but the Russians know that if they knock out the Iranians they kill themselves.”
In terms of current Presidential candidates, he said, both are “black boxes.” Both have contradicted themselves. Trump spoke to AIPAC about working with Putin, but on other occasions he said rolling up Iran’s terror proxies and fighting ISIS were top priorities. These do not go together. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has talked big about getting tough on Iran, but has not mentioned increasing the defense budget. These policies are riddled with inconsistencies and they reveal a misunderstanding of the current geopolitical situation on the ground in Syria.
Tony Badran is most concerned about the situation on the ground in Syria. For Badran, there is no more Assad regime, rather there is a hodgepodge of proxies fighting for Iranian and Russian interests. If any negotiations were to take place, they would be done on Iran’s terms, because they control the forces on the ground. Like Doran, Badran agrees that both Russia and Iran will do anything to keep Assad in power, because his regime is a vital component of both their Mediterranean and Middle Eastern strategies. Finally, Badran is concerned about Israel and Hezbollah and the potential for future hostilities. He outlines several scenarios, and concludes that Hezbollah could either be dramatically strengthened by their involvement in Syria or dramatically weakened, both of which have implications for Israel.
Badran leads off his discussion by going back twenty years to 1996, Hezbollah and Iran were not even on people’s radar. Then in 2006 there were Iranian rockets on Israel’s border. Now, in 2016, there is deterrence as a result of the 2006 war, but Hezbollah and Iran have an unprecedented and unparalleled presence in Syria. Everything revolves around Syria and the strategic environment there.
He then looks ahead to ten years into the future, in 2026. If Syria stabilizes, Iran is part of the conversation because they, along with Hezbollah, own the ground. In this period of calm two things could happen: Hezbollah could be severely weakened from overextending itself and hemorrhaging in Syria or, Hezbollah could buy new capabilities and have them in Syria. If the former takes place, then Israel can expect this period of calm to continue. If the latter happens, then the period of calm will be either shortened or lengthened, depending on the amount of weapons and their capabilities that are brought into Syria.
“Syria is really the lynchpin.” –Tony Badran
More importantly, policy toward Syria has been shaped in way that favors Iran. Iran has become the commander of the ground. Where there was once the Assad regime, there is now a variety of militias who answer to Iran and they are all protected by the Russian air force. Any stabilization conversation will now protect the interests of Iran. To put it in our own President’s words, Iranian “equities” will be safeguarded. We have accepted that Iran is there to stay.
Badran asserted that once an environment such as this exists on the ground in Syria, then a conflict between Hezbollah-Iran and Israel will be likely. If we look down the road ten more years to 2026, it is likely we will be dealing with a nuclear Iran, which has recognized regional primacy, and an infinitely more capable Hezbollah. This will definitely play a role if an open conflict between Israel and Hezbollah were to take place. The long term picture is just as important as the immediate opportunities that the current situation holds. For example, in the near term the Sunni-Shiite conflict could have a negative effect on Hezbollah, which only has two enemies: Israel and Sunnis in Syria. They have waged bloody war against both of them. The Sunnis have greater numbers and Israel is significantly more capable than Hezbollah in Lebanon. This could have serious consequences for Hezbollah and the Shiites in Lebanon.
Next, Badran discussed the implications of the Iranians moving southward toward Syria’s border with Israel along with the implications of a potential US-Russia cooperative agreement. In the case of an agreement, the US Air Force will attack certain terror groups on the ground, this, in turn, will strengthen Assad. This makes the United States Air Force the de facto air force for the Assad regime. It puts both the US and Israel on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict. What happens if Russia says there are Nusra cells in Daraa and Quneitra, Syrian border towns near Israel, let’s go fight terrorism there, Badran questioned? This will put the United States in an awkward situation, because the US is Israel’s strongest historical ally in the region and has been very clear about fighting near their border.
Moreover, there’s the issue of who takes the place of these groups in the Golan or Daraa when the US bombs them. Badran then offered potential outcomes. For example, buffer zones could be created and run by militias.
He agreed with Doran, that the alliance between Russia and Iran is indispensable for both parties. For example, it doesn’t hurt Iran if Russia gets a base in Syria after everything is settled. It will add S400s to the eastern Mediterranean and keep the Turks out, this will help destroy Turkish proxies in Syria. The idea that Syria could be pried away from Iran, held by both Israel and the US for decades, has always been false. When Assad was in trouble, it was Iran who came first to their rescue. This fault line never breaks strategically and it never will. Without Assad Iran loses their entire enterprise on the Eastern Mediterranean. On the other hand, Badran understands that smaller countries may think about it differently, because Jordan and Israel can’t afford to go to war with Russia. The United States must readjust, we can afford to go to war with Russia, and we must protect our interests and the interests of our allies.
“Russia and Iran need Assad—Period.” –Tony Badran
Furthermore, Hezbollah is fighting a war of attrition for a land bridge on the Northeastern Lebanese border, from Homs down to Quinetra. If the US and Russia start striking Nusra in the Qalamoun, Badran asserted, it will be Hezbollah’s de facto air force. It will help them to secure that land, which will serve as a buffer zone, protecting the Shia community in Lebanon.
Badran then explained how Hezbollah works with the Shia community in Lebanon. He described a situation where Hezbollah offers protection, money, power and stability, in return for their absolute loyalty and their sons and daughters. Men from Lebanon have been thrown onto the front lines in Syria and their rate of attrition is greater than they can resupply. In fact, it takes a year and a half to train an ‘elite’ Hezbollah fighter. Additionally, top Hezbollah fighters are dying in Syria. But, Badran was confident that this will not cause them to lose their de facto buffer zone on the border, the Russian Air Force has proven to protect that.
Badran argued that this creates a new dynamic. In February 2014, there was one strike from Israel on the Syrian side of the border, to which Hezbollah then retaliated in the Golan. Hezbollah now has a new capability to retaliate not from Lebanon, but from the Golan. In this case, Israel has accepted Hezbollah’s terms that they are not going to strike in Lebanon, but in Syria. At the same time, Badran asserted, that if Israel wants to get Hezbollah into a conflict then they should strike them in Lebanon. In the event that this new stretch of land consolidates in the future and it becomes a Russian and Iranian sphere, what will be the Russian as well as International position on continued Israeli operations in that area? Since the beginning of the war, Israeli strikes are no longer happening north of Homs. The Russians may likely continue to limit where Israel can strike Hezbollah. If Israel is forced to strike Hezbollah in Lebanon an open conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is imminent.
Finally, Badran outlined what Syria could be after this conflict. We might be moving towards a scenario where there is a settlement. But, we have to remember that never have these settlements held up. They last for a short period of time and then are broken and conflict continues.
Questions and Scenarios for a future ‘stabilized’ Syria:
- If Assad continues to have the support of outside powers, like the Russians, he will be able to retake Aleppo, then he will control all the major Syrian cities.
- Who will be able to hold this ground? Unless, the US and Russia are comfortable being in a constant war with the Sunnis in Syria, Assad will face a big problem.
- There may be a kill zone in eastern Syria, where Sunnis reside, in which anyone can come kill Sunnis in the “guise” of the war on terror.
- Will Hezbollah remain as a security force to protect the Assad regime from future insurgencies?
- They may get a year of peace, but Turkey may decide there’s an opportunity and reignite the conflict for their own territorial and ideological gain?
- Syria will likely be what Lebanon was in the 80’s; a situation where each power controls a particular space.
- Kurds will get a canton in the north, Assad in the west, and there will be a Sunni kill zone in the middle.
- Consolidation between each of the parties seems most likely.
Moreover, Assad and Russia are ethnically cleansing Syria of Sunnis by bombing hospitals and other humanitarian sites. They are trying to force Sunnis out, because if there are no hostile populations, then they can better control the land. Additionally, there are several thousand Palestinian refugees who sympathize with the Syrian revolution. In the event of another conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, they might take the opportunity to open up another front against Hezbollah either in Syria or Lebanon. A future war between Hezbollah and Israel is intertwined with the events in Syria. For example, if there’s a truce in Syria that may be affected by a war between Israel and Hezbollah and vice versa. “Syria is the lynchpin,” Badran said.
Finally, Badran does not foresee a South Lebanon security force formulating a buffer zone or a security zone. But, this is preferable to having the Iranians come down to the border and “set up shop there.
The Syrian civil war has many moving parts. It has created a space for Radical Islamism to become a legitimate political force, and allowed Russia and Iran to regain relevance in the Levant. The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is also a vital component of the civil war. Like Tony Badran said, what happens in Syria will decide the future of any conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. For these reasons, the United States has a vested interest in helping to stabilize Syria. It must assist in creating an environment where a cessation of hostilities is permanent and a unitary government can be created, which shares power between Jihadist, Russian, and Iranian interests. This is immensely difficult, considering the hostility between Sunnis and Shiites that Iran, Hezbollah, ISIS, and Nusra have facilitated. At this point, it is hard to tell if a solution is even possible.